Sunday, May 19, 2019

Speculations: A Weird Poet's Review

Speculations: Poetry from the Weird Poets Society, 2018: Mind’s Eye Publications, 123 pages, Edited by Frank Coffman, Illustrated by David M. Hoenig.

The Weird Poets Society was founded in 2016 by Frank Coffman on facebook as a group for published poets in the “Weird, Horrific, Supernatural, Science Fictional, Fantastic or otherwise clearly Speculative” genres of poetry. There are nearly 200 members, including myself. I believe it was in 2018 that Frank suggested publishing a collection of work from the members, and this first work, printed in the spring of 2019, is what I’m reviewing here. Twenty-eight poets are included, most with two individual poems. Some of these poems were previously published but many are brand new to this collection. Each contributor has a little “about the poet” paragraph included as well, and it was interesting to see the wide range of experiences exhibited by the members.

The poets included are Manuel Paul Arenas, F. J. Bergman, JP Bloch, Bruce Boston, Anton Cancre, Frank Coffman, Scott J. Couturier, Harris Coverly, Don Gillette, Patricia Gomes, Charles Gramlich, David M. Hoenig, Geoffrey A. Landis, Randall D. Larson, Lisa Lepovetsky, John C. Mannone, Kurt Newton, Kimberly Nugent, Cindy O’Quinn, Michael Picco, Ken Poyner, Peter Rawlik, Brian Rosenberger, Randy D. Rubin, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, David Schembri, John W. Sexton, and Don Webb. Although I’ve heard of—and read pieces by—quite a few of these folks, the only people whose writings I’ve consumed regularly were Boston, Landis, and Salmonson. I’ve also been in an anthology with Lisa Lepovetsky and spent many years in REHupa with Frank Coffman. Some other contributors here are highly accomplished even if I haven’t crossed paths with them before. Patricia Gomes is the poet laureate of New Bedford, Massachusetts. F. J. Bergman has won numerous awards, including two Rhyslings.

It’s always a little awkward for a poet or writer to review a collection that he/she is a part of. The readers will have to decide for themselves whether that devalues my comments. My pieces here are both recent poems from me called “When Night Calls to Hearts Pledged to the Sun,” and “They Rise to a Kiss.” Each has religious element and “When Night Calls” was partially inspired by a dream.

Leaving my pieces aside, my favorite pieces were by Bruce Boston, “A Stray Grimoire,” and “Pavane for a Cyber-Princess,” the latter of which I had read previously and which definitely fits the character of an ‘epic’ poem to me. I’ve made no secret of my admiration for Boston’s work over the years and have reviewed most of his poetry collections already. Boston’s list of accomplishments is a long one and his reputation in speculative poetry is well deserved. It’s quite a pleasure for me to final share a TOC with him.

I will say I felt quite comfortable and pleasantly happy with being included in this collection. There’s a range of styles, from free verse, to haiku, to formally structured traditional forms. We have the complexity of Coffman’s “Residual Murder” mixed with the deceptive simplicity of Kimberly Nugent’s “A White House.” There are playful, almost limerick-like pieces such as Salmonson’s “Bag,” and the formal power of Landis’s “The Price of Magic: Illusion’s Lure.” Nothing here felt forced or as if it didn’t belong. The language was fresh throughout and highly visual. There are no “clunkers.”

I’ll mention two other poets here whose pieces, back to back in the collection, particularly captured me while reading. These were John C. Mannone, with “Cycles,” with phrases such as “sackclothed moon” and “like Icarus with melted wings,” and the excellent “At the Mountain of Dreams” by Kurt Newton, which had such a nice melodic flow to it that I’ve already reread it several times now.

Top the poetry off with some dynamite illustrations by David M. Hoenig, and you have a really fine package that I am most pleased to be a part of. If you'd like to purchase a copy, the link is here

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Spirit Vessels: By Dennis Formento

Spirit Vessels: By Dennis Formento: Foothills Publishing, 2018, 78 pages. ISBN: 978-0-921053-27-9.

Spirit Vessels is the first chapbook that I’ve read from Dennis Formento, who lives in Slidell, Louisiana and is active in the local poetry community here. I’ve not met him personally but was interested in reading some of his work since I’ve heard good things about it from other local poets.

Spirit Vessels is Formento’s most recent collection and is a substantial work. The poems are free form and often leap from image to image. Some words that occurred to me frequently as I read through the pieces here were “jazz” and “improvisation.” A few pieces struck me as having surrealistic elements, but many more are what I would call “nature” poems. Local Louisiana elements are common but expand far beyond the usual swamps and gators. And there are plenty of references to natural environments outside of Louisiana. Most of this “nature” material is not pretty nature but reflects the damage done by pollution, coastal erosion, and climate change. These are not, for the most part, happy poems, but they present a realistic, if dramatic, view of the changing world environment.

I don’t want to suggest that such nature poems make up the entirety of the collection. There is plenty of variety here. But it was these pieces, such as “Water,” “Poem: ‘Useless’” and “Bayou Paddle,” that were the most memorable and effective to me. If you'd like to purchase a copy of the book, the publisher's site is here

There are at least two more collections by Formento that I know of, Looking For An Out Place, and Cineplex. I’ve got copies of both of these and since I certainly enjoyed Spirit Vessels very much I’ll be looking forward to reading and reviewing these as well.

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

The Best of the West, Edited by Joe R. Lansdale

The Best of the West, edited by Joe R. Lansdale, subtitled “An anthology of western writing from the western writers of America.” Doubleday & Company, 1986, 178 pages.

This is a collection of stories selected by Joe Lansdale, and including in introduction by Lansdale. Before I talk about the individual stories, I’ll give my overall viewpoint. I’d generally say I enjoyed most of the tales but the title is very misleading. A better title might have been, “Tales of a New West,” or something along those lines. Most of these tales are nowhere near  traditional westerns. Lansdale is clear in the introduction that that was what he was looking for but the title certainly would have led me to expect a different sort of collection.

Here are my thoughts on the stories:

At Yuma Crossing by Brian Garfield:  Actually set in the traditional western timeframe but a bit unusual in characterization. Overall, fairly traditional. In it, a man called the “Gringo” comes out of the desert to cross a river by ferry, but finds the ferry stranded on the far bank. He also finds an old man and woman, and a young girl who appears to be Indian. The old man is dying. The Gringo is depicted largely as an anti-hero, but he does seem to be susceptible to sympathy for the young girl. Anthologists often put their strongest tales up front and at the end. I don’t know if Lansdale intended that here but Garfield’s story was my favorite in the book.

Take a Left at Bertram by Chad Oliver: I’ve enjoyed work by Chad Oliver before. His story here is far from traditional, however, and I didn’t get a lot out of it. It’s well written and short but lacks conflict. Two men go fishing in Texas in the modern day. They are way out in the wilds and a temporal rift occurs that brings some stone age hunters together with the fishermen. Nothing happens, though, and the phenomenon disappears as fast as it came.

The Second Kit Carson by Gary Paulsen: a flash fiction piece set in the modern world. The narrator is a drunk and it’s unclear how much of what happens was real and how much he imagined. Nothing traditional in this piece. Well written, but it didn’t do much for me.

Night of the Cougar by Ardath Mayhar: This one is pretty traditional as to setting, but the hero is a woman, a mother who has to protect her child from a cougar while on the road in the dark. Lots of conflict here, lots of suspense, and some very fine writing. One of the top stories in the anthology.

Jasper Lemon’s Ba Cab Ya Larry by Lee Schultz: A poem. Only two pages. Interesting and enjoyable.

Stoned on Yellow by LoLo Westrich: Completely modern setting, with a touch of mystical seasoning. Well written, but more of a horror or magical realism tale than a western.

Making Money in Western Banking by Jeff Banks: Pretty traditional. We have a group of outlaws who are robbing banks. One has decided to quit but is persuaded to go on one last job. As you can guess, things don’t work out. A fun story, with a bit of humor.

Cutliffe Starkvogel and the Bears Who Liked TV by John Keefauver: Again, set in the modern world. I couldn’t find any connection at all to my concept of a western. If anything, it was again a kind of magical realism. A postman is the main character and is delivering hair growth liquid to a man he knows. As the stuff apparently starts working, the man goes into hiding and the postman tries to spy out what is happening. That’s where the “bears” come in, and I can’t say much more or I’d reveal the twist. This tale was perfectly well written and was probably intended to be humorous but it didn’t really work for me. Probably my least favorite in the anthology,

A Bad Cow Market by Elmer Kelton: A modern tale but with western tropes. The bottom has fallen out of the cow market and a rancher is about to give up on his dream. He is reminded, though, of how much the place means to him and finally hits on a possible way to save his ranch. This is a character study mixed with a certain amount of yearning for the simpler life. I thought it was very well written and enjoyed it.

Peaches by Lenore Carroll: A cute tale. Fairly traditional in setting. A buffalo hunter comes to town with a hankering for peaches only to find out that the local madam has bought all the canned peaches up for herself and her girls. The hunter has to do some quick thinking to try and get his share of the peaches. I enjoyed it. A fun tale.

Judas and Jesus by Thomas Sullivan:  Another fairly traditional tale. We have the trope of the world weary gunfighter who happens to have his guns named Judas and Jesus. He rides into another town only to be confronted by a little kid who wants to chance him but doesn’t have a gun. Some very fine descriptive writing here and an emotional ending that I liked a lot.

Sallie C. by Neal Barrett, Jr.: I’ve much enjoyed many of Neal Barrett’s books. This particularly story is not a favorite for me, however. It’s mostly a kind of reveal story, with a certain amount of “almost” magical realism in it. There’s not a lot of conflict but some. Well written but I personally didn’t find a lot of payoff in the ending.

The Nighthawk Rides by William F. Nolan: This was one of the more interesting tales in the book, but very traditional in the sense that it’s basically a “Zorro” story told with a different character in a different setting. It’s also written as a teleplay rather than in traditional prose. Nolan mentions in the introduction to the story that it came about when he was asked to create a teleplay for a Zorro type TV series. It was never produced, though, and you’ll get a laugh out of why. Anyway, I liked this story quite a bit. One of my favorites in the collection.

The Bandit by Loren D. Estleman: An old outlaw gets out of prison and tells his story to a newspaper man while he’s waiting for a train. The setting is largely modern although the story within the story takes place in the past with a robbery gone wrong. Think “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid.” Well written, as you’d expect. There was a real lack of tension since the events being told about happened long ago in the story. However, the ending twist is the reason why the tale was told in that fashion. Enjoyable but not one of the strongest tales in the collection in my opinion.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

A Lucid Dream

I had a somewhat unusual lucid dream last night. For those of you who don't know, a lucid dream is one in which you realize you're dreaming. In some lucid dreams you can completely control the dream, and in such cases I immediately start to fly. However, last night's dream was more one where I  came slowly to understand I was dreaming, and was trying to convince Lana of it, but I couldn't make radical changes in the dream flow.

It started when we had just gotten up in the morning and a small portable radio on our counter started playing on its own. I turned it off, then remarked to Lana that it was weird. I began looking around with a frown, and then told Lana that everything felt weird. She indicated that everything seemed normal to her. I told her that I thought we were in a dream, and she laughed. She watched me then as I did my "dream test," which is to see if I can jump up and touch the ceiling. I told her that if it were a dream I would be able to "hang" in the air for a moment. I tried it, and did not quite touch the ceiling, but there was a definite feeling of floating so I became absolutely convinced that it was a dream. Lana still argued against it.

Lana was getting dressed and then I realized that we were supposed to go to court this morning. I don't know why but I was going to be the defendant. We arrived at the courthouse (magically apparently) still arguing over whether this was a dream. As I went in the courthouse I was looking around for some mischief to get into. Lana directed us to a couple of plush seats and we sat down and then I smiled at her triumphantly and said:

OK, if this isn't a dream, can you explain to me why Batman is our judge?

Adam West was our judge, and his Batsuit was folded up on a chair beside him. I told Lana to watch this and got up from my chair with the intent of stealing the batsuit. West saw me, though, as I approached, and I turned to try and hide my intentions and he said in his classic Batman voice:

"Have spin moves become pat of the defendant's repertoire these days?"

At which point I laughed and woke up.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Capsule Reviews: Reasoner, Prosch, Whalen

Capsule Reviews:

1: Faraday: The Iron Horse, by James Reasoner.

James Reasoner creates some iconic characters and sets up a western series with a dynamite opening book. I understand there was a series of these books published in the past in which the sequels were written by other authors, but I haven't read any of those. I did much enjoy this one though.

Matthew Faraday runs a detective agency, a competitor to the Pinkertons. He brings young Daniel Britten onto his team and sends him to investigate an apparent attempt to sabotage the western expansion of the railroad. Someone is informing the Sioux of the movements and vulnerabilities of the "Iron Horse" and Britten soon begins to accumulate suspects.

We have a pretty good mystery built up here, and then a wild free-for-all ending in which the mystery is revealed and the action rolls. A really strong ending. Two particularly well developed secondary characters were Sam Callaghan, a rough frontiersmen drawn along the lines of Wild Bill Hickock, and Mordecai Vint, a peddler with a love of strong drink who also has a beautiful daughter--Laura. I have a feeling that Callaghan plays a role in the later books in the series. I liked him quite a lot.

All in all, an excellent and entertaining read.

2. Stage Fright, by Richard Prosch.

Stage Fright is the fourth book in the Dan Spalding series. Spalding is a music buff and record store owner in Ozark City who frequently gets involved in solving local crimes and helping local citizens. He's a bit of a Knight Errant, as in John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee, and the Spalding books evoke a similar feeling in me.

I've enjoyed all the previous entries in this series and this was no exception. A quick, taut thriller with lots of action and suspense.

3. Tragon of Ramura, by John M. Whalen.

This is the first book I’ve read by John M. Whalen, but it won’t be the last. It’s a standalone novel. The writing is very good, with a lot of action and well-drawn characters and settings. I’d classify it as Sword & Sorcery. Tragon is our main hero. He’s strong and courageous, but no Conan. He struggles with fears and doubts; he isn’t always top dog in a fight. One of the things I liked about the story is that it’s not just Tragon’s tale. It’s really an ensemble cast and several times we see other characters pull Tragon’s butt out of the fire. I particularly enjoyed Yusef and Darius.

The story begins when Tragon and his crew, who have been labeled pirates but hold that title in name only, arrive at a coastal town of “Afkira,” a fictionalized Africa. They are hired by a man named Hestus Variano to help him rescue his daughter from a city of sorcery called Caiphar. Mayhem ensues, of course, and Tragon finds that he has a strange connection to the daughter of Caiphar’s king. I won’t give more of the plot away so you’ll need to read it to find out what that connection is.

Whalen is certainly familiar with the tropes of Sword and Sorcery and adventure fiction. There are  elements in the tale which will likely remind many readers of Burroughs’ stories of Opar. There’s also a few twists on the general Sword and Sorcery concept. All in all, I enjoyed it quite a lot.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Missing Time!

So, the Causeway bridge is marked every 1/10 of a mile with a sign and is 24 miles across. For me coming across in the morning, the distance counts down from 24 to 0. At around 16 miles the bridge rises dramatically and there is a drawbridge that allows big boats to pass through from one side of the lake to the other. Normally, the drawbridge is down of course, as it was this morning.

The drawbridge itself is a metal grid that can be raised. It’s very different from the concrete that makes up the rest of the bridge and is very noticeable in both appearance and in the sound and sensation you get crossing it. Somehow, this morning, I missed it. In fact, I experienced about a 7 minute time-gap. I remember noticing that I was at 19.4 miles on the bridge countdown. Then suddenly I was at 12.3 miles. I’d passed 7 miles and roughly 7 minutes in the blink of the eye.

One possible answer to the missing time is that I was abducted by aliens. They obviously released me very quickly and I can understand why given all the spicy food I ate yesterday. They must also have released me before any actual probing because I don’t seem to have any residual effects from such an experience.

Another possible answer, far more prosaic, is that I was so focused on my thoughts that I simply blanked out the outside world. I was going over my lecture notes for classes this morning so I would have something of an excuse for such deep cogitation. The thing that is a bit scary about this, though, is that I seem to have been essentially “unconscious” for 7 minutes while operating a very large and potentially dangerous piece of vehicular equipment. What’s more scary to me, is that there were probably other folks on the road with me who were doing the same thing.

I’d say be careful out there but from my experience this morning it looks like being mindless didn’t hurt anything. There were no wrecked cars or blue lights in my wake when I “woke” up at 12.3 miles. Perhaps the mind is not such a terrible thing to waste after all.